In “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” war is glorious and sorrowful — it is the stuff of legend, and, as the title suggests, it is the point. If you enter the movie theater looking for character nuance or an exploration of the great themes that prompt the titular onslaught, then turn away from this third and last chapter in a series of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book. But if your eye is fixed on baser things, like rip-roaring action and some genuinely inspired fantastical sequences, then, in honor of the dwarf king Thorin’s final request to his company, I will follow you, one last time.
That is my personal recommendation for a film I had long wished to see ever since director Peter Jackson announced he would bring Tolkien’s novella about the homebody Bilbo Baggins to the big screen in three parts. Written before “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — the tomes Jackson had already successfully adapted, changing the way we talk about fantasy at the movies — “The Hobbit” doesn’t share the sweep and tragedy of those books. So when the first entry of the prequel trilogy was released, its bloat and general endlessness often were attributed to a misguided attempt to turn a light fable into a sprawling epic like the “Rings” films.
Were those criticisms accurate? Well, yes, but they missed the main point. A movie is either good or bad, regardless of its source material, and part one, “An Unexpected Journey,” remains a pleasant, yet extended return to the pastoral charms of Middle-earth, if not its mightiest heroes. That film introduced us to thirteen unruly dwarves requesting the services of Mr. Baggins to help them reclaim a lost dwarf kingdom from a terrible dragon called Smaug. They reach the mountain kingdom in part two, but it’s kind of a bore, save for the waking of the worm, the threat of his wrath, and Martin Freeman of course, who, as Bilbo, provides the audience a relatable way into strange and dangerous lands.
Thankfully, part three opens with a bang — or rather, a breath, and then fire — and it rarely lets up from there. The dragon is dispensed with quickly, his demise heard around Middle-earth, the gold-filled dwarf kingdom open for the taking. His absence gives urgency and a sense of stakes that the first two films lacked. The lead up to the battle is so tense, and the chance that alliances won’t be made in time to combat the common threat is so slim, that when bloodthirsty creatures finally descend on the mountain, total annihilation of our heroes seems imminent.
Prolonging that uncertainty is Thorin, who, having finally reached the treasure of his people, is consumed by greed and reneges on a promise to share the vast wealth of the mountain with the neighboring folk. He’d rather hole himself up in the fortified walls of the kingdom than fight with others of his race. Richard Armitage gives psychological depth to the dwarf leader. And in contrast to the surreal way Jackson depicts Thorin’s internal conflict — he stands alone in one sequence, a lost speck on a malevolent gold plain, solid at first, then devouring, like quicksand — Armitage makes Thorin the most compelling character in the film.
Bilbo is a close second, but he completed his arc in part two, when he shook off his practiced fussiness forever and outwitted a great beast. Here, he’s in full form, acting as an emissary to broker peace between isolated dwarves and their reluctant allies on the outside. Other characterizations border on the maudlin — such as an extraneous elf-dwarf romance — while one is just pointless. A character that I had no problem appreciating solely for his acrobatic feats in combat is shoehorned a backstory, deflating his appeal.
All that doesn’t matter so much when war breaks out in all its opulent grandeur. It’s a massively wrought, consistently entertaining sequence of the movie that keeps the audience spatially oriented, even though Jackson doesn’t cut to wide shots to wow you with scale as often as you’d expect. The battle is indeed large, but its true scope is measured in smaller moments. Each of the main players is given a task to do, or an enemy to vanquish, and Jackson lingers on the more personal fights. It’s more of a strategic struggle, than a haphazard, all-out assault.
It’s also tremendously silly in moments, a sentiment not lost on the filmmakers in the face of so much portentousness. It might take the form of a kamikaze troll whose head is outfitted as a battering ram, or a falling boulder that leaves no doubts about a character’s fate. Here be dragons, Jackson is saying, and something of a good time.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Dec. 24, 2014.